My Week in North Korea

A Soviet-born American tours the Hermit Kingdom and finds humanity in a most inhumane place.


How do you make a North Korean laugh?

To American ears that sounds like the set-up to a joke. The very idea of a North Korean giggling seems absurd. What can there possibly be to laugh about? The country has been ruled for more than half a century by absolute dictators who periodically threaten to blow up the world. It is populated by the children of a 1990s famine, malnourished orphans with oversized heads who never grew. It is forbidden to use the orphans' nickname: kotchebi, or "little sparrows," a reference to their habit of flitting around in the dirt looking for crumbs to eat.

Western impressions of North Korean culture are filtered through the prism of their totalitarian government and unrelieved misery. Day-to-day life is usually imagined as one of constant drudgery and fear. In 1965, Robert Jenkins was one of the few U.S. soldiers to defect into North Korea. Escaping four decades later, he wrote, "I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison."

But even prisons have culture, rules, and humanity, as do prisons within prisons (like, say, solitary confinement). Prisoners also have jokes. Humor can be the last tactic for staying sane in the face of unspeakable oppression, as the gallows humor of Eastern European Jewry can attest.

So making a North Korean laugh, it turns out, is actually quite easy. How do you do it? Take every racist joke you know—they will not have heard them, I assure you—and replace the target race, no matter what it is, with "Japanese." To wit: What do you call 100,000 Japanese men at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. How do you stop a Japanese man from drowning? Take your foot off his neck. It's just that easy to become the funniest person in the entire country of North Korea.

They have their own jokes too but, like the rest of their products, these can't compete on an international scale. To quote my guide during my five-day trip to the Hermit Kingdom late last year:

Knock, knock

Who's there?


Su who?

Su Pak (Korean for watermelon).

Some North Korean humor, though, is actually quite good. As I was driven into Pyongyang from the airport, our guide referred to the monolith Ryugyong Hotel as "our latest rocket launch," a quip that both acknowledged the tension between our respective nations and simultaneously defused it (pun intended, God help us), all while seeming quite daring to an outsider. It was the first of a constant series of surprises I experienced during my eye-opening visit to the world's darkest dictatorship.

Exciters Unwelcome

It's easy to get into North Korea as a tourist. The reason is the most capitalist one possible: They need money. In 1980, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) achieved the dubious honor of being the first Communist nation to default on its loans, ruining its credit rating to this day. The following three decades were hardly better for the DPRK's international reputation. The 1990s collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe removed most of their strongest allies. President George W. Bush famously included North Korea on his "axis of evil," and despite Dennis Rodman's best efforts President Barack Obama will not be calling on Marshall Kim Jong Un any time soon. Like his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, this dictator is a global oddity. 

China, the DPRK's closest ally, has been urging North Korea to follow its lead and liberalize the economy. The North Koreans steadfastly refuse. And though the DPRK still insists that the Korean peninsula is one nation riven in two by U.S. imperialists, South Korea is increasingly uninterested in having anything to do with its backward brother.

Pariahs on the world stage, North Koreans proclaim a philosophy of self-reliance and absolute autonomy they call "juche." But they've learned the hard way that it's really difficult to buy things when you don't have any money. Hence their tourism industry, a way to attract some much-needed hard currency from foreigners.

My reasons for traveling there were more personal. Like Kim Jong Il, I was born in the former Soviet Union. Visiting North Korea would be my best chance to see what my family had gone through before we fled to Brooklyn when I was 2 years old. There was also the issue of time: I suspect North Korea as we currently know it will not be around for much longer.

It never occurred to me that you could visit North Korea until I logged into Facebook one day and saw photos of a friend flashing his dimwitted grin against the backdrop of the Korean People's Army tanks. "How the hell did you get into North Korea?" I asked him.

"It's easy," he told me. "I met a guy at Burning Man who runs a company. His role is to vouch for you."

A little Googling revealed that several firms offer to take outsiders into North Korea. It was easy, but not at all cheap. All you needed to do was get yourself into Beijing on the right date—and not be a journalist. 

As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don't-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, "there's nothing normal that happens ever."

My experience ended up being completely different from Smith's—about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.

The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do's and don'ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. "The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?" No one did. "That's about it. Just don't be a jerk and everything will be fine."

Surely this was nonsense. Everyone knew that one misstatement was enough for a one-way ticket to the gulag. "What's the worst trouble that anyone's gotten into?" I asked.

"One time someone sent their guide a present from abroad, and they wrapped it in the Pyongyang newspaper," Phil explained. "Well, that paper happened to have a picture of Kim Jong Un, and the person had to write a long apology. That was about it."

That was pretty much that. Our group of about a dozen tourists went to the airport the following morning, and that's when the first bits of North Korea began to permeate. The airport employees were Korean, and they wore the red badges of Kim Il Sung and/or Kim Jong Il that all North Koreans are required to display. (Back in the day, it took Kim Jong Il a while to get his own badge; it seems his son is respectfully following suit.) As we waited by check-in for stragglers, several more North Koreans came to check their luggage. To a man—and they were all men—they bore two or three boxes of electronics with them, TVs or computers. The square boxes were bound with plastic ties and wrapped, making it impossible to see what they were without getting out a box-cutter. This was one advantage of being trusted and powerful enough to be allowed out of the country: You could brazenly smuggle things in, and no one would dare challenge you.

I was a bit nervous about the flight. For years Air Koryo was the world's only one-star airline. Its fleet consisted of Soviet planes from the 1950s, which were banned from flying inside the European Union due to safety regulations. Not that it mattered much: Currently the whole country of North Korea has one flight in and one flight out per day, from and to Beijing.

But when we boarded I saw that the planes had apparently been upgraded. Judging by the sparkly red plastic decor, Air Koryo had made it as far as the 1980s. On the plane we had to fill out a customs form declaring that we were not bringing in "killing device," "exciter," "narcotics," or "publishing of all kinds."

Time Travel, North Korean Style

The plane taxied and stopped about an hour later. We walked into the terminal, which was just one large room like a modified airplane hangar. On the far wall were huge framed portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Our cellphones were then confiscated, to be returned when we exited the country. There was now no possibility of leaving the nation, no possibility of contacting anyone I knew. Every neuron in my brain shouted, You don't belong here.

At the far end of the terminal was a makeshift X-ray scanner manned by military men. As my jacket went through the machine, the soldier gestured for me to empty the pockets. I took out my iPod Touch. "iPhone?" he asked.

The iPod Touch is identical to an iPhone in every way except the ability to make calls. I wracked my brain as to how to explain this to him. "No," I said. "It's an iPod."

He gestured to me to hand it over to him. The soldier flipped it over and read a label that I had never noticed. That is how I learned the other difference between an iPod Touch and an iPhone: The back panel is clearly labeled accordingly. He handed it back to me without another word.

While waiting for the rest of the group to get through, I saw a vision outside the airport that blew my mind: A relatively (very relatively) well-dressed woman was walking in the parking lot, talking on her cellphone—which are pervasive in Pyongyang, as I later discovered. A soldier stopped the woman and made a comment, clearly something along the lines of "Papers, please." I watched her roll her eyes and practically could hear her snorting with disgust. Her disrespect was far greater than any I had seen when the NYPD asks for a bag check. She dug through her purse—still talking on the phone—and handed the soldier a small card. He waved her on her way as I stood there wondering how such an exchange could be possible in a patriarchal, militaristic regime.

We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but "time" is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were "stuck in time," in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.

So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there's a thriving black market in VCRs—the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn't think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers—more often than not female—become "wealthy" and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It's capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it's growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.

Phil introduced us to our Korean tour guides: Song, the male, and Kim, the female. Song was in a shirt and tie, while Kim was in a pale skirt/suit combo. Both were quite upbeat and spoke flawless English. (Their names have been changed for their own protection.) Their accents were very minor; the cadence of their speech was more foreign than their pronunciation of words.

As we drove to our hotel Kim began to give us some background information about North Korea. She never once referred to "Dear Leader" or "Great Leader" the entire trip, instead speaking of "General Kim Il Sung" and "Comrade Kim Jong Il." Even then, the mentions were few and far between.

Every minute of a North Korean tour is accounted for. This sounds a great deal more ominous than it feels; it's just a function of a well-planned itinerary, the very point of a guided tour. One of our first stops was to see the Martyrs' Cemetery, where the Koreans who fought the "Jap bastards" (as they are described locally) in the 1930s and '40s were buried. Each headstone was topped with a bronze bust, carved in an almost art-deco style.

At the very top center of the cemetery was the ultimate North Korean martyr: Kim Il Sung's wife and Kim Jong Il's mother. Kim Jong Suk (always called the "anti-Japanese heroine") is the Mother Goddess in the North Korean mythology. She allegedly doted over her husband constantly, cutting off her hair to line his shoes as he singlehandedly defeated the Japs. We all bowed before her grave with due reverence. As the group milled about the cemetery taking pictures, I pulled Kim aside. "Did Kim Jong Suk have any other children?" I asked her.

She froze, and for the first and only time during my entire trip her affect became tense. "…Yes," Kim said. She said it in the same way a Mississippian would reply if asked whether his state was known for lynching. Kim didn't want to lie, but neither did she want to talk about it at all.

I apologized, telling her I didn't mean any disrespect. I deduced what fueled Kim's reticence: Despite being forced to learn the legends of the Kim family in excruciating detail, North Koreans know few actual facts—and never ever ask questions. Kim Il Sung's second wife is a non-person, for example, and to this day few people anywhere know how many times Kim Jong Il was married, and when. It is not known where Kim Jong Un lives; there is no equivalent of the White House in North Korea. In fact, government buildings don't have signs to illustrate what lies within. If you needed to know where to go, then you'd know. Otherwise, mind your business and don't ask questions.

The laws in North Korea are oppressive, but they aren't completely ambiguous or arbitrary. They generally boiled down to three principles: 1) Don't denigrate the Leaders, 2) Don't denigrate the government, and 3) Don't acknowledge anything is wrong. It's this last one that explains so much of the apparent insanity behind so much of what North Koreans say.

In the Vice video, Shane Smith asked why he was the only one eating in a giant banquet hall, only to be told everyone had just left. Absurd? Of course. Inexplicable? Not at all. For to acknowledge that there are no guests can be viewed as a criticism, and criticisms of the status quo mark you as a troublemaker. Troublemakers in North Korea fare even worse than the average citizen.

Besides being conditioned to fib, North Koreans are deliberately starved for information. Like a real-life version of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, Pyongyang for six decades has largely succeeded in keeping its population unaware of world history and current events. There is one state television channel. Reading foreign materials is a felony, and North Korean prisons are some of the most brutal the world has ever seen. Add the regime's nasty habit of taking three generations of a family to punish a given individual (to "purify the blood"), and you're left with a population living in woeful, inflicted ignorance. In fact, North Koreans are only permitted to go abroad if they have family members left behind—hostages to be punished should anyone think of defecting.

No wonder, then, that so much is in a permanent state of disrepair. Everything in North Korea is shabby. Everything. To point out a problem is only a hair away from a complaint, and that brands you as a troublemaker. So all the money goes to construction, with nothing for maintenance. Every carpet had a stain, every wall had a crack. The hotel elevator buttons were mismatched. More than one bathroom during the tour had a faucet that was rusted through. Everywhere there was at least one fly—even on the plane.

The Shabby Propaganda Machine

The central focus of Pyongyang is the two leviathan statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, where citizens cheerfully sweep the area clean with brooms set aside nearby. But directly adjacent to this political Mecca and wedding destination was Mansudae Fountain Park. The shabbiness extended there as well.

The park, Kim let us know, is where couples and families went for "gentle walking." I could not help but wince when I heard her say that. I realized that dozens of Westerners had heard Kim use that expression, and not one of them had told her how silly it sounded. I thought back to my family members pleading with me to correct their English if they made mistakes. The cost to speak correctly was zero, but the benefits of communicating clearly were high. I myself speak three languages, and know how important it is to learn idiom.

I pulled Kim aside in the park and let her know. "The word we use is 'stroll,'?" I said. "You take your wife for a stroll in nice weather."

"Oh! OK! 'Stroll.' How do you spell that?" As I spelled it out she mimicked writing with her finger, the better to commit the term to memory. "Thank you. Thank you very much!" Her gratitude felt out of proportion, until I realized that the only access she had to non-textbook English was encounters like these. The guides had a list of Western media that was permitted to them—Titanic, Jennie Gerhardt, Jane Eyre, and Dickens—but anything else would bring severe consequences. No matter how conscientious, they couldn't really improve at their job.

I thereby made it a point to teach Kim as much as I could, without correcting her in front of other people. She would pull out a frayed notepad and write down what I said, while asking me to corroborate what others had told her. I had not heard of a chatterbox being referred to as "having a monkey in your ear," for example. Neither could she understand why "having a monkey on your back" meant being in the throes of addiction (or what addiction was, for that matter).

I wanted the expressions I taught her to be jarring to hear in North Korea. I hoped that the tourists who came after me would do a double-take, and stop seeing Kim as a North Korean robot but as what she was: a young woman growing up in a country governed by a very dated ideology. If any future tourist to North Korea hears expressions like "bestie" or "frenemy," I'm the one to blame. There was also "get it together," "you're a mess," and "you're a hot mess." I admit my delight to teaching Kim "get on my level" only to have her mischievously respond, "Don't you mean for someone to get down to your level?"

"You should be a teacher," she told me. I bit my tongue, for I was embarrassed to imagine what she would say if she knew the truth. Part of my reason for going was to do research. I co-author books for celebrities by trade, and was toying with the idea of writing Kim Jong Il's "autobiography" based on what is presented as fact in the DPRK. I wanted people in the West to understand what the North Koreans really thought, and I wanted to do it in an entertaining pop way. (One successful Kickstarter campaign later, and the book will be ready by the fall.)

The next day we drove to a location in the countryside. There we heard a soldier give us a lecture about the secret concrete wall that divides the two Koreas, allegedly built flush with the countryside so it would only be visible from the north. According to the brochure—yes, there was a brochure—the concrete wall "was built by the south Korean puppet clique at the instigation of the U.S. imperialists, their masters, in order to divide the territory and nation in two for ever" [sic].

Then we were taken outside to look through mounted binoculars at the wall. Whether we saw a wall, a path, or just some dirt was impossible to say.

As my tourmates struggled to figure out how to take a photograph through binocular lenses, I caught sight of a mantis swaying in the wind. The insect reminded me of a fable which I thought Kim would appreciate. "Do you know the story of the fox and the scorpion?" I asked her.

"No," she said. "What's that, a 'scorpion?'?"

"A scorpion," I repeated, making a stinging gesture with my fingers.

"I don't know," she said, still not following the term. I wasn't that surprised; once when I asked my grandmother how to say "stingray" in Russian it ended up becoming a conference call with the whole family wracking their memories.

I struggled to find the words. "It's like a lobster that lives in the desert, and its tail can sting you with poison."

"Oh, like a monster."

"No, it's real." I pulled out my pen and paper and drew her a passable picture. 

She stared at it and simply shrugged. "We don't have that here." I thought about how I knew about scorpions, and the ways were myriad: nature shows on TV, books, biology class, the astrological sign, action figures, horror movies, comics. But since they didn't have any of these things in North Korea, there was no reason for Kim to know about them. The censorship was that all-encompassing.

Or was it? What did she know and how did she know it? I tried to feel Kim out during our travels together, stumbling for the borders of the ignorance she was forced to endure. They had a circus; did they have clowns? "Oh, you mean like a joker?" OK, so there was that. Were the rumors true? Had they in fact heard Gangnam Style? "I did, but I didn't understand all of it," she confessed. Yes, she had an "oppa" (big brother) like PSY referenced. And yes, in a moment of unintentional Orwellianism, she admitted to loving her big brother.

I couldn't figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.

"Of course," she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. "We saw it on the television."

Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn't particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn't keep such major world events a secret.

I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can't show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel ("The Hotel of Doom") a never-finished monstrosity that's been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.

The next day we were taken to the International Friendship Exhibition, the one place where we weren't allowed to take photographs, which was odd even by North Korean standards since it's an exhibit and an honest one. We passed through huge ornate doors and replaced our shoes with paper slippers, so as not to scuff the beautiful wooden floors. The climate inside was carefully controlled, and there were no windows. There were seven floors in total, judging by the elevator schematic. This is where all the gifts that the leaders received were put on display, for all the people to enjoy.

The basketball that Madeline Albright brought Kim Jong Il was in a case alongside kitschy Eastern European samovar sets. An old PC, complete with manual, was duly presented behind glass. As the exhibit guide took us around the first room, pointing out the significance of various objects, my eyes fell upon what is, literally, the craziest picture I have ever seen. It was a two-sided painting mounted on a pedestal. On the near side was Kim Jong Il in chain mail, wielding a broadsword, riding a tiger through the snow. On the verso he was in his traditional leisure suit, the tiger now splayed on the ground. Kim Jong Il stood with one foot on top of its head, smoking a cigarette, having just killed the tiger—or perhaps having just laid it.

There is a sense among Westerners that the Leaders are a sort of omnipresent Big Brother. This is true but imprecise. For while 100 percent of the signage is propaganda, there is far less signage overall than in the West. A typical subway car in New York City might have 40 ads, while the Pyongyang metro would only have one photo apiece of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Conversely, our president's framed picture hangs in every government office. Of course, the DPRK doesn't confine government to mere offices; it's everywhere.

The propaganda has also been losing its effectiveness. North Korean founder Kim Il Sung is regarded as a war hero who "liberated" the DPRK from Japanese rule. Under his reign—and thanks to North Korea playing Russia against China for aid—North Korea's economy actually outpaced the South's for decades. But with Kim's death and the rise of his son in 1994 came floods, an embargo, and a devastating famine. Kim Jong Il received popular blame for the carnage.

It may be easy to convince an isolated population that they have "nothing to envy in the world," as one of their popular songs goes. But it's practically impossible to convince them that they have more food this year than they did last. Even if that's the fault of Yankee imperialist bastards, Kim Jong Il either authorized the actions or was powerless to stop them. The famous Kim Jong Il stories ("He has perfect pitch!" "He can shrink time!" "He can change the weather!") serve a very real function: they're political ads designed to convince a skeptical, not credulous, populace that the son is the equal to the father.

Evening in Pyongyang

That night we drove around Pyongyang. It is impossible to describe is what it's like to be in a capital city that doesn't have much electricity. There were some lights on in the high-rises, and some electric signs for restaurants were lit up, but most of the streetlights were dark. Yet the streets were full of people walking and talking while kids darted by on bicycles and rollerblades. Despite the darkness, I felt safer than I would in New York.

Kim went to the front of the bus, fiddled with a microphone, and began to sing a cappella. The song was "Arirang," a traditional anthem of the Korean people. Though I didn't understand the words, the poignancy behind it came through. The dark streets provided an appropriate backdrop to her voice. I grew up poor. I understood what it's like to have pride in what you have, even if you have very little. And I understood what it was like to know what your poverty looks like to others. The guides must have understood this better than most of their countrymen. They could see how the poorest young tourists were still dressed better than all but the richest in North Korea.

The guides are exposed to more outside information than 99 percent of their country's population, and speak with foreigners every day. Thanks to the tips they get, they are quite well off. As a result, the positions they hold are very competitive, and their loyalty to the state must be absolute. Or at least, they must be able to convey that impression to their superiors (who themselves must be able to perform the same pantomime).

Kim worked seven days a week for at least 12 hours a day—maybe 14. But she will never be able to, for example, buy hand lotion in the store, no matter how much money she has. She will never be able to see the Internet. She will never be able to go on a trip and will never be able to drive—let alone own—a car. She was in a position to live the best life North Korea had to offer, but she also knew enough to know that her life seemed inadequate compared to the rest of the world.

When Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union in 1926, her cousin pulled her aside at the going-away party. "When they ask you in America," he said, "tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery and that we are all dying slowly." Did Kim feel the same way? I wanted to find out, but wasn't sure how to ask. The fact was, she had less freedom to speak her mind than someone in Stalinist Russia nearly a century ago. Song's job was to report on her, and vice versa. Everyone in North Korea is under constant surveillance and must answer to their comrades in weekly criticism sessions.

"You know," I told Kim on our last night, "I came here to see what my family went through. And thanks to speaking with you, I really have a better understanding of how my mother grew up. She must have been a lot like you when she was your age, and her life was a lot like yours."

Kim looked at me and paused. "Then your mother must have hated Russia." Kim couldn't have been more explicit. But she didn't really need to be.